Want to write a musical? Here’s how, with some help from King Henry VIII

Want to write a musical? Here’s how, with some help from King Henry VIII

Katherine Parr tends to
the ailing King Henry VIII

Coming up soon is the London (UK) launch of a new piece of musical theatre. The star? None other than Britain’s famous King Henry VIII … he of the numerous wives.

But this is not yet another Andrew Lloyd-Weber set piece performed by actors and singers who are household names. This time, the creators are two bright sparks with excellent musical pedigrees, but a fresh approach to the London stage. And the performers? Brilliant, talented young people who will undoubtedly be the West End stars of tomorrow.

I spoke to creators Paul Harris and Eddie Copeland recently and asked them how it all works. Here’s a summary of our conversation…

How did you first get started writing music/lyrics?

Paul: I’ve been writing music ever since I can remember, and I studied at the Royal College of Music. Before Henry VIII The Musical, I had written another seven musicals for younger school pupils, focused around themes like Noah, Christmas and Robin Hood. I always have a musical idea in my head!

Eddie: For years I’ve enjoyed writing, and the written word has been a central part of most jobs I have done, from journalism to professional fundraising. This musical has been my first major public piece of creative writing, and has been a phenomenal learning experience. Having had to produce three different versions of the show for three different theatres, we now have a really tight and polished script that’s evolved over time.

How did you two get together, and how does the partnership work?

Eddie: Years ago, Paul was Head of Music at a school I attended in Cambridge. We bumped into each other several years later, and realised that we had similar interests in music and recording, and so got together to work on some material.

Paul: As for the partnership on this show, thankfully we seem to have very complementary skill sets: I focus on the composing, training the cast to sing the songs, and I lead the band for the performances.  Eddie’s passion is writing and public speaking, so he wrote the script and has directed the show.  Everything else from publicity to organisation we share as best we can!

Why Henry VIII? What did you see in him – rather than any other famous historical character – that inspired you to write this?

Eddie: There’s an age-old tradition in theatre where audiences love seeing a familiar tale retold. Everyone knows about Henry VIII (just think of the thousands of books, dozens of films and The Tudors TV series). Quite simply Henry VIII is the perfect character for the stage. He’s dynamic, enigmatic and changeable: the musical starts with a young and energetic king with the hopes of nation at his feet; but he progresses into an angry, dark tyrant. More importantly, his story is filled with other amazing characters, too – not least the six wives who each have such strong personalities, and yet are so distinctive. Henry’s story is a gift for the stage and allows us to explore every emotion possible: there’s anger, humour, despair and hope in equal measure. I don’t know of any other story that offers the same dramatic range.

Want to write a musical? Here's how, with some help from King Henry VIII

Kathryn Howard

You say you incorporate a number of musical genres in the score. Why did you choose the genres you chose? How did you suit them to the story?

Paul: In any successful musical, the songs mustn’t be an interlude to the plot – they must drive it forward. We try to convey that not just with the lyrics, but also with the genre of the music, and I tried to match the musical style to convey something about the character or situation. For example, the musical opens with the death of the king – a dramatic song which is made incredibly powerful through a full-cast choral score. Katherine of Aragon (who came from Spain) sings her opening number with hints of flamenco; another song has an aggressive rock theme which complements an argument sung between Henry and Anne Boleyn.

Like the musical score to a film, the music should be so well suited to the plot that it never seems too obvious or out of place – I think that’s what we’ve achieved with this production. You can hear some of the songs at: www.henryviiithemusical.com/about/songs

How did you deal with the difference between 16th century English and modern English? Did you mix those together? If so, how does that work?

Eddie: This is very much a modern musical, both with the music and the script, but we don’t ignore its old English heritage. In fact, for some parts of the script, such as the King’s Coronation ceremony and the trial where Katherine of Aragon defends her marriage to a packed courtroom, I found the actual words that were said at the time, and have used these in the production. Just as with the music, we have tried to use language that suits the characters: some of our more serious personalities such as Thomas Wolsey speak with the deep and learned vocabulary of their day, whilst more comedic characters such as the Jester deliver their lines in a much more modern style. It may sound strange, but it seems to work!

The show has been performed by a number of schools and other young performers, to young audiences. How do you feel that helps their appreciation of Henry VIII and 16th century history?

This musical is a brilliant way for young audiences to learn about one of the most famous periods of English history. We’ve been contacted by dozens of schools who have requested that we visit them to perform it precisely because it’s a highly entertaining and educational at the same time. My seven year old niece came to watch the original show, and she can still recall all the wives, their names and how they fitted into Henry’s life. After the show she looked at me earnestly and said: ‘It would have been much simpler if he’d just stuck with his first wife, wouldn’t it?’!

OK – let’s have a quick look at your promotional video and see a bit of the performances…

How do you see the show progressing in the future? Where is it going next?

Paul: First we’ll need to take stock: We’ve already been on an amazing journey. Two years ago we started our own youth theatre to put on the production and were lucky to find some of the most talented young actors in the country to join the cast. A year ago we put on the original show at a school in Essex, which was seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC loved it and asked us to perform it at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, and we went on to headline their Open Stages National Showcase of Talent at Stratford-up-Avon in July 2012. We’re now bringing it to London because the cast are so passionate about what they do, and we’ve received countless requests from people who have heard about the musical and who want to see it on the London stage.

Want to write a musical? Here's how, with some help from King Henry VIIIAfter this, who knows? We’ve had help promoting the musical from the likes of Alison Weir (the UK’s biggest selling female historian), Stephen Fry, and Kerry Ellis (leading lady of the West End and Broadway), so we hope that others can help us take it forward to new heights. From the New Year we will also be offering the production for licensing by schools, universities and theatre companies.

There will be three performances from 21st-22nd December at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre.  Tickets are £32 for adults and £16 for children and are available from www.henryviiithemusical.com

Try to catch it if you can!

While you’re here, don’t forget to stop by my Bookshop…books and eBooks to help you write better, from just $2.50 (less than £2.00!)




  1. This looks like a must see. Great youth production.

  2. Wish I could go and see it – good luck to everybody!

  3. This sounds like so much fun! I hope it’s a wild success and eventually crosses the Pond.

    • Thanks Mary! The beauty of it is that it was designed originally to be performed in schools, so in theory it could easily go across the Pond to any high schools – either as part of their music studies or studies of Tudor England, if they ever do that …!

  4. What an interesting interview and the musical sounds wonderful. I will be sharing this 🙂

    • Thanks Anita! It’s lovely to see new artistes entering into the field of musical theatre in this way and especially when they are using a cast of talented young people.


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